The History Of Pit Barbecue Goes Back Further Than You Think

Pit barbecue is one of the great North and Central American cuisines, with America sporting plenty of influential barbecue pitmasters and personalities (not to mention Dr. Howard Conyers working to uphold authentic Black barbecue traditions). Pit barbecue is less a cuisine than an experience, and all the regional barbecue styles mean each of those experiences is unique. But despite its modern areas of prevalence, pit barbecue wasn't invented in Texas; its real history goes back much, much farther, as in literal millennia.

Pit barbecue is one of the oldest food styles still in use — if not the very oldest. The general method of pit barbecue has been around for upward of 300,000 years; the evidence indicates that the methods involved in cooking this way have long predated recorded human civilization. It's likewise important to note that not all barbecue is pit barbecue; the term refers to a specific type of cooking.

Pit barbecue was originally literally cooked in a pit

It helps to understand what pit barbecue actually is. Though the method has come to colloquially refer to literally any type of barbecue, this is incorrect. According to modern pitmasters, "pit barbecue" means slow-cooked meat from a smoker (not a grill!) using hardwood as a fuel. But even this isn't the true classic definition of pit barbecue.

Simply put, classic pit barbecue is what the name indicates: Meat cooked underground in a literal pit, a form of earth oven. People have been cooking this way worldwide, seemingly for as long as they've been cooking food in general. Though it's less common to find actual below-ground cooking methods in widespread use now, some exceptions exist (such as Hawaiian barbecue's unique luau tradition). And while pit barbecue or methods like it have been present around the world for an absurdly long time, the North American tradition comes from the Caribbean and predates contact with Europeans.

Barbecue traveled from the Caribbean to the mainland

The word "barbecue" is a European adaptation of the indigenous word "barbacoa" — the wooden framework on which the meat is cooked. Europeans first encountered the technique during Christopher Columbus's voyages to Hispaniola. From there, European colonizers brought it with them to what is now the United States; there's a record of Hernando de Soto and his men eating a barbecue meal near modern-day Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1540. The Spanish — and the enslaved people they brought with them from the Caribbean to the mainland — eventually taught the technique to other Europeans. Though the original version of pit barbecue used a variety of animals, the American tradition eventually became largely pig-based – at least until things like brisket hit the scene.

Though there is certainly no shortage of regional pit barbecue styles today, all of them ultimately sprang from this common root. And while we may not know how old pit barbecue truly is, we know it's much older than you might've realized.